Sept. 29, 2001
seen as profiling ; Pilots say they need to be cautious, but Arab Americans
say they are being unfairly singled out
By Jonathan Osborne, American-Statesman Staff
Applause filled the cabin, passengers later recounted, as airport police escorted two Pakistani men off American Airlines Flight 886 at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport a week ago. Early on, airport officials said the men's names matched, or closely matched, those on an FBI watch list of people sought for questioning in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Officials later changed their explanation, saying the men were taken off the plane at the request of the airline.
Federal regulations give commercial captains the right to remove anyone from a flight without reason. And since the Sept. 11 hijackings -- acts that federal investigators have linked to a Middle Eastern terrorist network -- anecdotal evidence suggests pilots are using their power to remove mostly passengers of Middle Eastern descent.
In the more than two weeks since the attacks, at least 10 passengers fitting that description have been ordered off commercial flights across the country, including the two men in Austin and a Pakistani man in San Antonio. None of the passengers has had any connection to the Sept. 11 attacks.
After watching colleagues and thousands of innocent people die in the attacks, pilots say they have a responsibility to ensure safety on their planes and are right to err on the side of caution. But Arab Americans and civil libertarians say the airlines aren't explaining why passengers are being removed and that the incidents reek of profiling.
"We're calling it 'flying while brown,' " said Sreenath Sreenivasan, founder of the South Asian Journalists Association and a professor of journalism at Columbia University. "It's one thing for the authorities to come in and say they suspect you. It's another thing for a pilot to say, 'I'm uncomfortable with you, not because you pose any threat, but because of your skin color.' "
Around the nation, passengers removed from commercial flights include:
* Two Pakistani businessmen in Orlando, Fla., who were ordered off a Sept. 17 U.S. Airways flight bound for Baltimore.
* A 41-year-old American of Iranian descent who was asked by a pilot to leave a Dallas-bound American Airlines flight in Seattle on Sept. 21.
* An Egyptian-born American in Tampa, Fla., who said he wasn't allowed to board a Sept. 21 United Airlines flight to Cairo.
* Three Iraqi men who were not allowed to board their scheduled Northwest Airlines flight home from Minneapolis to Salt Lake City on Sept. 20. Northwest said in a written statement that it "regrets any misunderstanding" and is investigating the matter.
Other airlines have largely refused to comment on the incidents, but pilots privately say that heightened fear is leading captains to order passengers off planes.
"Most captains and most pilots are very, very paranoid right now," said a commercial pilot for Continental. On one flight, the pilot said, a captain carried the crash ax -- an emergency tool found in all commercial cockpits -- in her lap the entire route.
First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams, who served on the 1997 Gore commission on airport security that advised against racial profiling, said that in light of recent events, not only is racial profiling inevitable, it may be necessary.
"The difficulty we must now address is a situation in which all the hijackers are from abroad, all are from the Middle East and all are Arabic speaking," Abrams said. "In those circumstances it seems entirely appropriate to look harder at such people. Remember, Justice (Robert) Jackson said, 'the Constitution is not a suicide pact.' "
Ron Lovas, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, said his union doesn't condone singling people out based solely on the color of their skin or nationality.
He said he doesn't know what prompted the pilots in each case to order somebody off an airplane, but "given the sound judgment that I feel most pilots have, there must be a logical reason behind it."
"Perhaps they've come up on a passenger screening list. Perhaps different airlines have different red-light buttons that go off," Lovas said. "There must be some type of a perceived threat or they wouldn't do that."
Norman Strickman, assistant director for aviation consumer protection at the Department of Transportation, issued a statement shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks asking each airline to "ensure that its employees understand that, not only is it wrong, but it is also illegal to discriminate against people based on their race, ethnicity, or religion."
Similar memos have circulated among employees at all the major airlines, including Delta, which issued its reminder days after Ashraf Khan, a 32-year-old Pakistani American in a first-class seat, was asked by a pilot to leave a Sept. 17 Dallas-bound flight in San Antonio.
"He told me, 'I want you to pick up your luggage and leave the airplane because myself and the crew do not feel safe flying with you,' " Khan said. "I was too embarrassed to go back on the plane. I asked the stewardess to get my bag."
Delta is investigating the incident.
"What happened to me at the airport has totally shaken me," Kahn said.
Mohammed Malley, a Muslim community leader in Austin, said he was disgusted when he learned that some passengers cheered after airport police took the Pakistani men off the Sept. 22 flight in Austin.
"That sends a message that some people right now are very angry, and they want to lash out at somebody," Malley said. "Worse than the cheering of the people was that the government does not think our community deserves the same human rights that other communities receive."
The two men were detained for several hours, questioned by the FBI, then released. American has refused to comment on the incident.
Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, encouraged residents to write their local and federal lawmakers and demand a stop to such incidents.
"Simply because someone is of Middle Eastern descent, it does not automatically make them a terrorist; you cannot make that leap," Harrell said. "People are understandably angry and upset and afraid . . . but we need to exercise restraint. If we give up our principles, we're lost."
But some of those removed from airplanes said they already feel as if they've been stripped of their freedom.
"I feel that it's not the America I knew," said Kareem Alasady, who was pulled from the flight in Minneapolis. "It's a different America."
This report contains material from the Associated Press. You may contact Jonathan Osborne at firstname.lastname@example.org or (512) 445- 3605.
COLOR PHOTO; Photo: Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News; Ashraf Khan is originally from Pakistan but has lived in Texas for 11 years. He was made to leave a Delta flight out of San Antonio after the pilot told him that he made the crew uncomfortable.